Stephen Baxter is one of the most versatile speculative fiction authors writing today, with works ranging from near future to far future to parallel universes to the distant past. He won fame for his award-winning Vacuum Diagrams and his bestselling Flood and Ark. In Stone Spring, he explores another corner of the speculative fiction universe: alternate prehistory.
In 7300 BC, much of the North Sea is dry land, a fertile plain on which stands the village of Etxelur, known throughout northern Europe for the high quality of its flint. However, this “Northland” is being flooded as the Ice Age ends and the great glaciers to the north melt. In a millennium or so, the sea will rise several hundred feet.
Fourteen-year-old Ana of Etxelur is confronted with this reality amidst all of the other hardships of the Mesolithic era. After one too many disasters in her life, from the loss of her home to the waves to the splintering of her own family, she decides to fight back. Novu, a wandering trader from a town called Jericho has recently arrived in Etxelur, and while Ana initially laughs at his strange words like “bricks” and “walls”, when he explains what they are for, she starts to get ideas.
Stone Spring is an eerily plausible story of how people might have lived at a time when they were just figuring out agriculture, and about what could have been with a little nudge in the right direction. Baxter also includes a number of subtle nods our archaeological knowledge of the period. Ana speaks a distant ancestor of the Basque language. The newcomer Ice Dreamer is the last of the dying Clovis People, having survived a harrowing journey across the Atlantic. And while he doesn’t get everything right (for example, it wasn’t that uncommon for people to live to age 40 in the Mesolithic, as Baxter suggests), the backdrop of the story is well-researched and vividly described.
Stone Spring is broad in its scope, exploring such diverse topics as the sophisticated lifestyle and international politics of prehistoric Europe and the psychology of people who are seeing large-scale construction for the first time. Yet through all this, the story of Ana, her family, and the fate of her village shines clearly. The ever-present danger of the Mesolithic is keenly felt, and fortunes can turn on the life or death of a single character, making it a compelling read as well as a thought-provoking one.
My rating: 4.5 out of 5.